The Bad News About Signed Books

by Craig Stark

#10, 19 January 2004

A Visit with Old Tom the Orchid Man

Ok, you're new at this bookselling (or collecting) stuff, and you've just bought some books at an estate sale. Good ones, you think. Hope. But you won't know for sure until you get home and look them up. During the investigative process, which necessarily involves looking more closely at what you have, you then discover - wow! - that one of them is signed. Fantastic news, right?

Maybe. Maybe a big maybe. If you're Maude the Maudlin Poetess and you've self-published a book of really bad lyrical verses about gossamer-winged insects flitting from daisy to daisy in enchanted meadows, is anybody going to care whether you signed the damn things? Not on this planet. They're going to wish you hadn't written the stupid book in the first place.

What if you've got a book that obviously sold well, one that clearly made money for both publisher and author? Is a signature going to make a difference? Well, let me see what I can find on my bookshelf. Here's one. Orchids for Home and Garden by T.A. Fennell, Jr. Open it up, and there it is on the first free endpaper: "For Andy with best wishes for orchids in your home and garden. Tom Fennell, Jr. 9-5-76." Hmm. Published September, 1959. Seventh Printing, October 1974. Seven printings? That's promising, right? This guy must have been famous, practically - well, a mover and shaker in the orchid biz anyway.

Know anybody who collects autographs of mid-century orchid growers? I don't, and I bet even if I grew the suckers myself - from seed - I still wouldn't spend a dime on one. The only earthly reason I can think of why this book would have any value to me would be if my name was Andy and I was the one and only Andy being wished the very best by old Tom the orchid guy. For all non-Andy's, the best we can say is that the presence of an inscription probably doesn't devalue the book, as an owner's name might. The point is, I am not going to Bora Bora this year on the proceeds from the sale of this book, and that's assuming I'll attempt to sell it at all - a very unlikely contingency, given how annoyingly common it is.

Here's some bad news about signed books, and doubtless precisely what you wanted to hear:

Signed books are relatively common. Tons of authors sign their books. Some authors sign all their books. A lot of it has to do with ego. In case you haven't noticed, there's no shortage of ego now, nor has there been since books were first written. Born with pride, we were, from top to bottom. If you wrote a book, wouldn't you be flattered if somebody asked you to sign it? Heck, you'd probably do it without being asked.

9 times out of 10, maybe as many as 99 times out of a 100, the presence of a signature adds little or nothing to the value of a book. The exceptions are signatures of famous people, and even then they almost always have to be ultra famous, or at least highly collectible (i.e., intensely famous in a narrower context), to make a significant difference in realized prices. Years ago, when I was new to this, I had to relist a Fran Drescher signed autobiography four times to get it sold for $20, and even then there was only one bid. This surprised me. Practically devastated me. It wouldn't now. I've seen too many celebrity signatures fail to bring home the bacon. You gotta be big. Abe Lincoln. The Babe. Neil Armstrong (more about him later).

This brings me to my final item of bad news:

Some signatures are fakes. Oh really? This isn't news to anybody, but keep in mind that nobody really knows how many there are. Some will try to supply you with the precise figures anyway, depending on what they've got at stake, perhaps divined from reading orchid leaves. If somebody uses the word "rare" in the same sentence with "forgeries," they're grossly minimizing the reality of the problem (and probably own stock in eBay); if somebody else claims that half the signatures sold on, ok, eBay are phonies, they're grossly exaggerating, and further inquiries would probably reveal that they are the embittered new owners of Meg Ryan's "Just Around the Corner" bookstore. The truth is somewhere in between, and in any case, no matter how many fakes are out there, the trick is to increase your odds of both buying and selling the real thing.

How do we know if something is authentic? Ultimately, we can't know. Even if you watched a book being signed, if you subsequently put it on a shelf and walked out of the room, from that moment on there would no longer be an indisputable means to authenticate it. If this seems over the top, note that there have been instances of signed books being stolen from bookstores and libraries and replaced with forgeries. It happens.

Things aren't hopeless, however. Fortunately, there are tests you can administer on your own, things look for, to get at least part of the job done. The process is not unlike that of determining if a book is a first edition - that is, first look for evidence that it's not what you hope it will ultimately prove to be. Before I get into this, however, how about a side trip to the Kennedy Space Center?

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